A Former Cult Member Opens Up About How She Was Able to Escape and Start a New Life

It’s day four of ‘Hot Crime Summer’ on The Megyn Kelly Show, and Megyn is diving into the world of cults with a woman who was born and raised in one. 

Today, Michelle Dowd is a mother, journalism professor, and author of the new book Forager: Field Notes for Surviving a Family Cult, a Memoir, who lives in southern California. So, it may be hard to believe she was born into an ultra-religious family cult known as the Field that operated near the Angeles National Forest in CA. Dowd’s maternal grandfather convinced generations of followers that he would live 500 years and ascend to heaven when doomsday came. 

On Thursday’s show, Dowd joined Megyn to discuss her upbringing in the cult and how she was ultimately able to escape and speak out about her experience.

Growing Up in a Cult

Dowd and her siblings were amongst the first children born into the Field, after her parents were married in what she called a “royal wedding” for the cult and its members. For the first seven years of her life, Dowd and her siblings lived in a small home near a town dump in El Monte, CA. Once her family could no longer afford to live there, they moved to a mountain to develop grounds for the cult. That’s where she remained for the next 10 years. 

At the time, Southern California was a mecca for small cults, yet the Field was particularly successful. Rooted in religious notions, Dowd’s grandfather made decisions for the masses and exerted mind control techniques to keep followers engaged. After his death, Dowd said the cult became more rigid, which led to many difficult years for her.

Living at the Field, Dowd said she suffered poverty and abuse. In her early teens, Dowd was admitted to the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles for an autoimmune disease after a friend’s mother (who lived outside the cult) noticed signs of internal bleeding on her legs. She spent months in the hospital without her family while doctors monitored her condition because she said modern medicine was not available at the Field.

The cult taught that parents may need to sacrifice their children if God called upon them to do so, which led to a childhood devoid of much love or affection. But Dowd’s mother did teach her and her siblings survival skills that would one day help her escape. 

In addition to wilderness skills like navigating by the stars, foraging for edible plants, and understanding how to identify basic needs (think: shelter, water, and food), Dowd said there proved to be a larger benefit. “We can use the word ‘forage’ – it’s true – and I used the foraging for… how to find what you need anywhere, if you know what you’re looking for,” she explained. “So, once I knew I wanted to get out, I had all the skills to do that, and I owe that to my mother – not because she necessarily prepared me for that purpose, but it did indeed serve me.”

Escaping the Cult

At 17, Dowd chose to escape the cult, going on to attend and live at Pitzer College in Claremont, CA. As she explained, she had stopped attending traditional schooling after second grade, when her family moved to the mountain. She was taught to never trust outsiders, which made assimilating to the world outside of the cult a challenge.

She did, however, love learning and education. “I did not naturally acclimate – I was very fortunate that a college took me in, that I was living there at 17, that I was able to have the ability to learn and a passion for learning,” she explained. “I was really grateful that it led me straight to grad school and then I was able to get a teaching job very young and I was able to support myself.” After an undergraduate program at Pitzer College, she attended University of Colorado Boulder for graduate school. She went on to get a teaching job and is currently a journalism professor at Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga, CA.

Life Outside the Cult

Despite her career success, Dowd believes that she was emotionally stunted due to her time in the cult. “It took me a long time to figure out how to make connections with other human beings that are healthy,” she said. Much of that had to do with the way she was raised.

For the better part of 15 years – from the time she was 11 all the way through her mid-twenties – Dowd said she never cried because her mother taught her not to. Whether she got her feelings hurt or was sexually assaulted, she was told to act like everything was fine as not to become a ‘victim.’ Dowd argued that her mother likely believed she was instilling a useful life skill in her children, though it could be seen as abuse.

Reflecting on her life today, Dowd says her mother would call her a “bad seed” and not approve of her decision to teach secular worldviews or raise her children outside of the cult. Dowd’s mother has since passed and her oldest sister remains part of what today is called an “organization,” but she is in touch with some of her siblings. According to Dowd, the Field now operates under another name and allegedly functions more like a church community than a cult.

You can check out Megyn’s full interview with the Dowd by tuning in to episode 573 on YouTube, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you like to listen. And don’t forget that you can catch The Megyn Kelly Show live on SiriusXM’s Triumph (channel 111) weekdays from 12pm to 2pm ET.